ALICE MARRIOTT REMEMBERED
My late husband, Gould, and I recognized early in our post retirement careers as publishers of our own Still Point Press that a book about the famous American Southwest anthropologist/ethnographer Alice Marriott (1910-1992) would be an interesting and important one to have on our list. In addition to her most popular book, Maria: The Potter of San Ildefonso (1948), she authored or co-authored nineteen books and dozens of articles focusing on the diverse cultures of the Southwestern American Indian.
Alice was in very poor health and virtually blind in February 1987 when, at the suggestion of our mutual friend Margaret Lefranc Schoonover (artist and illustrator of many of Alice’s books), we first approached her about writing her autobiography. Three weeks later Alice responded to my letter, saying there was no particular reason for the delay—“just that typing is sometimes difficult for me.” And as for Margaret Schoonover’s praise of her work, Alice said, “Margaret is an amazing person. All her geese are swans; she believes in them sincerely, and wants them to see each other in her own glowing light.” In addition to the letter, Alice sent us an unpublished manuscript, “Spanish-American Folk Stories of Some of New Mexico Saints,” written in 1982. The stories she had written down had been told to her by José de la Cruz Romero (Alice’s and Martha’s talkative handyman, Maclovio Salazar, in The Valley Below, 1949), but the dialect was so heavy it was almost unreadable. When I called and mentioned the difficulty we had in “translating” it, Alice became defensive: “In New Mexico, at the time Cruz told me the stories, we all used a Spanish shading in family conversations. Far from being a mark of patronization or disdain, it was a mark of warm friendship and trust. It meant something in the relationship between speaker and listener. And in this case it gave an added conviction to the stories. In New Mexico thirty-odd years ago, if there were any segregation or patronization, it worked the other way. We were called Anglos, with a down pitch to the ‘o,’ and we were segregated.”
We assured her that we would consider the Cruz manuscript, possibly changing some of the heaviest sections of dialect, such as “There’s loots San Juans. So many eet’s hard to tahl wheech you talkin’ ‘bout.” But we reminded her that we were hoping for more about herself and her career; we wanted an autobiography of Alice Marriott.
She went back to work, but after a few futile attempts to produce a typewritten manuscript, she realized that she was too handicapped to continue. She called us from Oklahoma City, where she shared a home with her colleague Carol K. Rachlin, apologized, thanked us for our interest, and regretted that she was no longer able to write. We then asked her to consider taping her memoirs. While she had never done that, she agreed to give it a try. I mailed her a small tape recorder, a number of cassettes, and a long letter of encouragement in which I asked a few questions to help her get started, such as “What drew you to New Mexico? What were your first impressions of the Southwest as a whole and of Santa Fe in particular? When did you first meet José de la Cruz?”
Some months passed before the first tape arrived in the mail with a shaky hand-written letter from Alice describing her difficulty using a recorder—“I’m still eye-minded rather than ear-minded,” she wrote. I transcribed the tape as best I could (her speech was slurred) and returned it for approval and editing. More months passed before we found another tape in the mailbox and another letter lamenting her struggle with dictation: “The tape recorder and I try to spend at least an hour a day making faces at each other. It’s slow work and I don’t at all like the battery-powered woman who lives in the machine. But give up? No!”
Alice had reservations about tape recorders when she first began her serious studies of Indian cultures in the Southwest. In 1952 she wrote: “tape recorders undoubtedly have their place in the ethnological world. But I imagine that both the ethnologist and the informant must go through a prolonged training process before being able to use a recorder to the best advantage. And since the material recorded by the machine must ultimately be transcribed anyway, I stick to the old notebook and pencil. The tape recorder alone will never be entirely satisfactory. It can catch words and nuances of intonation that the notebook cannot record fully, true enough. But it cannot catch the subtle shades of gesture, the lift of a brow or the turn of a wrist, that an observant eye can note and a quick hand jot down.” Nevertheless, she realized that since her eyesight was virtually gone, taping her memoirs in 1987 was the only possible way to complete the assignment we had given her.
After Alice received my latest transcriptions she wrote: “I’m scared to look at the transcripts you sent. I know the work is bad, and I really don’t want to find out HOW BAD. As of this moment I feel the whole business is a mistake, and if it weren’t for you I’d build a fire in the fireplace, hot as the weather is.” This was alarming news. She had actually burned the manuscript of her first book, The Ten Grandmothers (1945), started over, and produced a book that received glowing reviews and stayed in print for decades. “Please don’t be discouraged,” I quickly responded, “remember the old SMU Press adage: 'Don’t get it right; get it written.' You are making a valuable contribution. Carol, keep her away from that fireplace!”
A week later Alice sent me another letter written in an unsteady hand, saying “I’m going over the transcripts and I wonder why in the world you bother with me—I’m not worth your generous misuse of time. It proves that I knew what I was talking about when I warned you that Margaret’s geese are swans. It’s been a tough summer—my eye getting worse and Carol’s are developing cataracts; my poor old white poodle, Tessa, trying to find her way out of this world and into St. Francis’s. I think that is the hardest of all, to watch a creature who has never known anything but loving and being loved enduring slow pain which she can’t understand. Well I’ll try to keep plugging, but don’t expect much.”